The American Religion

Albert C. Dieffenbach

Berry Street lecture, 1944


delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Berry Street Ministerial Conference

Boston, Massachusetts

May 24, 1944


            The Berry Street Ministerial Conference enters upon its one hundred and twenty-fifth year. In 1820 William Ellery Channing, the minister of the Federal Street Church, Boston, instituted the conference in the recently built chapel of his congregation, in Berry Street, by the side of the meeting-house. It is the oldest Unitarian institution, and there has been no intermission whatever in the annual succession of essayists.


            At the first meeting Channing gave the paper and described the purpose of the organization. It was to be composed of men in the Liberal ministry, "those who harmonize generally in opinion”, but not simply to make it a means of extending their peculiar views; rather "having for its object the general diffusion of practical religion and of the spirit of Christianity.” The words practical and spirit were italicized.


            Of the several original purposes of the conference, according to Professor Charles Lyttle, two have been taken over by other organizations. Its character as a professional union of ministers has been appropriated by the Ministerial Union, which is practical in its purpose and program. Its place for the reception of reports on the "state of religion in the Commonwealth” and the suggestion of methods and means of Liberal propaganda work has been assumed by the American Unitarian Association. Only the method of organization, the opening prayer and the theological address remain.


            The subject of Channing's paper was "How Far Is Reason to Be Used in Explaining Revelation?” He insisted that the Scriptures reveal God's unity and fatherhood with "noontide brightness”, and that this revelation agrees perfectly with the teaching of nature and the sure dictates of our rational and moral faculties. "The progressive influence of Christianity,” said Channing, "depends mainly on the fact that it is a rational religion, [not without revelation, but] a religion which egress with itself, with our moral nature, with our experience and observation, with the order of the universe, and the manifest attributes of God.”


            In their earliest discussions, the ministers were expressing their "experience and observations” in the spirit of a new era in religion, and as citizens of a new society and democracy. Within a generation there were papers and discussions of the social and political issues of the young nation. The ministers, by their practical concern in public affairs, were continuing the tradition of their many colonial forerunners, notably, such men as Boston's Chauncey and Mayhew, John Wise of Ipswich, Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, and, believe it or not, Jonathan Edwards, the greatest American theologian of all.


            These men and other parsons, taken altogether, were as influential and determinative in the creation and construction of the nation as were the founding fathers. Indeed, they gave the fundamental principles of government, especially in hundreds of election sermons, for two generations before the Revolution. When the time drew near for organized action toward American independence, ministerial counsel was sought by the men chosen to make the Declaration and the Constitution. It happened that on the night before Paul Revere road out into Middlesex, John Hancock and Sam Adams were discussing these things in the parsonage with Rev. Jonas Clark; pastor of the Church in Lexington. Calvin Coolidge was not wide of the mark when he said in 1926, on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that the real founders of this country were the colonial preachers.


            There were Tories among the clergy in the colonies, to be sure. The proportion of them to the revolutionist pastors is not known, but, the latter were largely responsible for the constitutional convention and the written Constitution. They were insistent that the new government be established according to the pattern they had so long been laying down. "There is not a right asserted in the Declaration of Independence, says Alice M. Baldwin, authority on religion in the Revolution, "which had not been discussed by the New England clergy before 1763.”


            Of course, this was not a clerical revolution. Foment for a new order was everywhere in the colonies. Especially in Virginia the leadership was in the hands of the laity, with Thomas Jefferson preeminently the leader and, in fact, the vigorous opponent of some of the doctrines and the political presumptions of the dominating elements of the Church of England and its clergy. Many of the churchmen had little if any concern in the coming of a free and United States of America.


            It is the purpose of this paper not to extol the ministers as though they and religion were the all in all in the tremendous experiment, but duly to give their part, to show the constant relation between religion and politics, to propound what indeed may be obvious namely, that the ultimate basis of America, as of every government in the world, is religious, and most of all to state as clearly and definitely as I can, what the actual religious ideas of the people are as expressed in their daily lives.


            The fundamental beliefs about monarchy and democracy are metaphysical, or as we may say, theological, in the broad use of the word. That is to say, the government is more than a legal compact, an economic order, a political system. The foundations are laid not in the flesh but in the spirit. Lincoln at Gettysburg referred to the citizen's relation to his country as a dedication. A generation later Woodrow Wilson wrote a book on the State, which, he said, is spiritual; twenty-five years ago, in his effort to give us a new commonwealth of the world, he provoked Clemenceau to say, truly but not sympathetically, "Wilson talks like Jesus Christ.”


            Here in the United States there is a creative tradition which is composed of many elements, sad in my opinion the chief of these is religion. It is strange that so little has been written of our religious history. I mean of course not the story of the several churches, for there are denominational records aplenty, but the religious factors which entered into the life of the nation from the lives and convictions of the people, as well as from other sources. While every other phase in the rise of the nation, social, economic, political, and cultural, has been told in books without end, religion has been so scantily studied as to have been virtually disregarded.


            One may have a considerable sympathy with Mr. Bernard DeVoto and his condign judgment against the literary fallacy; only, Mr. DeVoto, himself, is in some part blameworthy, with many other writers, in not recognizing so great and powerful a force as religion throughout history in all of its main mutations, in the progress of civilization, and in the foundation of this country. We have had books about American faith and religion in the democracy, books on religious background, on American Christianity, on special phases of religion in limited periods, and asseverations that this is a religious, even a Christian nation. Early in our history, DeTocqueville wrote of the depth of the spiritual passion which he found among the people who, he said, were "obsessed of the idea of unity.” James Bryce (of all foreigners, he knew us best) said that religious zeal and conscience led to the founding of the New England colonies, and "religion and conscience have been a constant force ever since.” But this religious force is vaguely described. It is conveyed to us in its undefined and mystical nature, set in the heart and soul, intimated by the language of poesy, but not estimated under analysis of its components. We should like to know, what is this religion?


            Religion is infinitely more than abstraction; it is probably not an abstraction at all. Definite ideas and conduct compose a religion. That is to say, there is something more than American faith, more than religion or religions in a democracy, and that more is the American religion. Now religion is a way of life, we say; and a way is something plain to be seen and understood. There is a body of beliefs in the lives and behavior of the people of this land. Can we find them and state them?


            Some of these vital doctrines are to be found in the churches, and some are contrary to the doctrines in most of the churches. There has been a growing emphasis upon the elements of the American religion in the preaching and instruction of all or nearly all of the denominations, including, in some measure, the Roman Catholic Church and its increasing social action.


            For nearly three centuries a theological development has proceeded in this country, with the rise and expansion of the nation as a community. The origins of our religion may be found in European history, but mostly, I believe it is indigenous. Certainly one must qualify the Protestant Reformation, and question the common belief that it is responsible most of all for the democratic freedom and society, A liberal Protestant historian Henry K. Rose, has said that the Protestantism of the sixteenth century was little more than "a halfway house on the highway from Catholicism to religious independency.”


            As for our theology, most of it was the Catholic dogma of Augustine, modified through Calvin, which came with the Puritans. It was here that Calvinism suffered unremitting assaults at the hands of men in the dissenting tradition. There was a man of that tradition who had the root of the matter in him. More than a century and a half before Martin Luther, he began a work the largest fruition of which, some historians believe, is to be found in the institutions of the American people. That was John Wycliffe.


            Calvinism has passed away forever in America, and even in Presbyterianism the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is not heard, with its corollaries of election and predestination, and the depravity of man. That is definite.


            A terrific, but futile, effort to restore this monstrous structure with certain grotesque adornments has recently been made, as the result of the First World War and the lost faith in mankind. Fundamentalism, in some Protestant churches here, and Karl earth overspreading Protestant Europe with his crisis theology, were two phenomena, not to mention the strange case of Reinhold Niebuhr. But they are not going to be a lasting influence. Have they not, indeed, already passed? Our way of life in America, and the ideas of which it is an expression, are too deeply rooted and set and sturdily grown to admit of any such reversion. History does not turn backward in religion. We pioneers of the colonies, with our free and adventurous way of living, not only broke the bonds of the king's subjects, but repudiated the prior theological proposition that God himself is King with arbitrary and capricious domination over us and our salvation.


            It was our preachers who delivered us out of this bondage; at least, it was they who told us what we were and what we must do to be worthy of ourselves. Their service was incalculable in interpreting the life and the principles under-girding and overarching it. Later on there were outside the clergy distinguished religious guides and prophets of the American life as it was and was to be, and, of course, you will say that Thomas Jefferson led all the rest.


            In the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, we have  a theological document if ever there was one, which most remarkably describes the nature of God and man by stating the rights of man in his endowment from the hand of the Creator, Earlier figures such as Roger Williams in Rhode Island and William Penn, were given, too, of essential things that make us Americans, with our own religion, It is not too bold a declaration that virtually every one of the immortals, beginning with Washington, was unequivocally an advocate of the American religion, if not by explicit statement of doctrine, surely by their deeds, which were after all the doctrines in operation.


            We know that these men were not believers in the theology of the churches, so far as the doctrine of God is concerned. That was likewise the case with the revolutionary ministers who cast off Calvinism. There was an impression for a long time that the negation of religious beliefs characterized the creation of the country. Timothy Dwight of Yale was violent in his denunciation of the alleged gross godlessness of Jefferson's belief, and his picture of the moral degeneracy that was bound to follow is a lurid and awful one.

The real principles on which the nation was established were solid, magnificent affirmations. They had to be. "A society no less than an individual without religious beliefs,” Julian Auxley says, "would be like an organism essaying motion on land without a skeleton. It would collapse gelatinously. This is because religion overflows in action, and conduct is right or wrong according to the ideas that enter into the whole body of thought. Religion must have a framework.”


            This is sound, though the simile of a skeleton is inadequate. Really, the ideas are as much the religion itself and quite as important as the emotion the aspiration, the goodness, the spirit of reverence are. Ideas are inseparable from these things.

In other words, there is an American creed or theology, and can we find it?


            Before we go into that, let us look for a moment at the kind of religion the autocracy or the monarchy was based upon. The idea was simple. The ruler received his authority directly from God. He was endued with divine wisdom and divine right.

The motive which induces obedience to his dictates is essentially religious... The ruler may be God himself, as the lama of Tibet, or the spokesman of God, like Mahomet; he may be the Emperor of Japan in direct succession from God, or one created out of circumstance in history, like Hitler, the Volksgott, or something akin to it, of the German people.


            To men in this state of society, the orders of the government are regarded "not as the product of human intelligence but are held to be inspired by divine wisdom.” On the other hand, we do not believe that the acts of Congress, Parliament, and Soviet Council, are divinely inspired, and Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin never think such a thing about themselves. The principle of these societies is faith in and dependence upon human intelligence. The real bond which unites society in the democracy is not fear of God but the duty which men owe to one another. They interpret their duty to God in terms of service to their neighbor.


            Stalin does not find it necessary to refer to God at all. Good toward man is in need of no divine sanction, he would say, to prove its religious quality. In fact, he would disregard the word religion, as a superfluity or a superstition. The service would stand of itself. But the ideas of the new order in Russia are, nevertheless, religious ideas.


            We see the transition from the old dispensation to the new, from the law delivered "in the, thunders of Horeb to the sermon preached on a hill-top in Galilee,” and beyond that to a community in which the virtue, the truth, the love are themselves the religion and the divinity of which we speak in terms of God.


            Once when a friend chaffed Chesterton that he was always talking about religion and politics, and why didn't he talk about something else, his reply was, "There isn't anything else.” The truth is that religion and politics are two aspects of life, and in fact encompass life. Religion, in the sense of beliefs and worship, is one part of what Hocking calls the principle of alternation. It is the backstroke, by means of which we get a grip upon the things we believe are true and are to be done. The outstroke is our action, according to our convictions; our action, in the widest sense, when we engage in, the life of society, which is politics. We are effectual for good in the measure that or convictions are clear, true, and strong.


            In the colonial period of America a powerful set of forces was born of convictions in the lives of the liberated people on new frontiers; subtly and silently these ideas were at work, in New England as well as in Virginia and elsewhere, undermining the church establishments and breaking their stranglehold on the masses of the people. "This pioneer culture first found an ideology in Jeffersonianism,” which, according to John. M. Mecklin, "worked hand in hand with dissent in the overthrow of the Anglican domination and offered vigorous opposition to the entrenched Federalism of Massachusetts and



            The religious leaders, as we have seen, long before Jefferson were creating an ideology, and the first thing they changed was the meaning of God. A generation after Jefferson's time the people had their own ideas. There is a story about an itinerant Calvinist preacher who was lecturing in a school house in Tennessee in the days when Andrew Jackson was regarded as the leader in democracy. The speaker announced the dogma that the sovereignty of God called for our believing that certain persons were called to life eternal and certain others to eternal death.


            A frontiersman arose and said, "Did I understand the speaker aright when he said that God, of his own decree, called certain persons to eternal life and condemned certain other persons to eternal death?” "Yes,” said the speaker, "you heard me aright.” "Well,” said the frontiersman, "it will never do!” "Never do?” said the lecturer. "What do you mean by rising and challenging one of the great doctrines like the doctrine of the

sovereignty of God?” "Well,” said the frontiersman, "do the people have anything to say about it?” "No!” replies the lecturer. "Well,” said the frontiersmen, "then it will never do in these days of the Jacksonian democracy.”


            This is not much of a formal argument against the idea of a God of arbitrary decrees, but it is true to the requirements of the American religion. As Bishop McConnell says, the people are not likely to consent to religious truths unless somehow these truths minister to their deep inner needs.


            The people utterly rejected the next article of faith, the depravity of man, and the vicarious atonement, and by the simple rule of choosing what was serviceable to them and square with their experience, they went farther in modifying their belief in God.


            Are the American people theistic? What is theism? There is an excellent definition by Douglas Clyde Macintosh. "God” he says, "is a superhuman Spiritual Being, an essentially personal power, an intelligent loving moral Mind and Will, great enough in wisdom and power and favorable enough to human wellbeing to for man what man ought to do for himself but what it is infinitely desirable to have done what man apart from God cannot reasonably be expected to do for himself.”


            Who believes that? Who, for that matter, hears it now in the preaching of the land? Even in the backward regions the effect of the revivalism and evangelism beginning in the Great Awakening worked for the undoing of such a conception of God because it distinctly told the people that they have the power within themselves to be saved. Macintosh’s statement provoked replies from many sources. Paul Eutchinson was representative. He said, "I greatly doubt whether any theistic argument on the intellectual horizon will fully satisfy the examination of the modern man.” Increasing dissatisfaction is expressed with conventional theism, declares John Wright Buckham, and a great number would agree with him when theism is, to cite another definition, "the hypothesis that the ultimate  ground of the  Universe is intelligent will working out a moral purpose, in the course of, which God consciously and specifically influences human fortunes,”


            The name of God is still used and will be used, but there is a dearth in the word. "It is easy,” said Newman, "to say God and mean nothing by it.” "God of itself is the most colorless and indefinite word in the English language,” In John Dewey's opinion. Surely it is an indefinite word, but it is nevertheless a word of origin, an anchorage, a security, a faith that a man counts on in going about his business. There is a God, men say, and what they believe is perhaps contained in the intimations of the phrase of Lincoln at Gettysburg, "under God.” That means there is a ground and condition of

being that is dependable and favorable to our living and working, But God is not conceived by the people as one who "specifically and consciously influences human fortunes,” and governs their affairs.


            "The normal American,” Willard Sperry thinks, "adds to his faith in himself his further confidence in some principle in the universe, which in his bolder moments he calls a Father, that sanctions his search for happiness and aids him in this search.”


            After the first World War, American delegates went to the Stockholm Conference and there for the first time the European Christians learned that we had produced in this country a theology with a truly American aspect. They found that we had arrived at definitely original solutions that were in keeping with our national development. They saw that we did not believe in God as they did, and, on the positive side that the most distinctive thing about the American religion was the social gospel. Back of this gospel were Intellectual and other influences - e.g., the discovery of the laws of evolution led to the belief in the perfectibility of man and society; the emphasis of this theology was upon the immanence of God rather than his transcendence; the fixing of the gaze was on this world rather than another future world; there was the new interest in the life of Jesus which brought forth the original meaning of Jesus himself.


            These views are very different from those in European Protestantism and our own earlier church-faith. The social gospel was more than the application of Christian principles to society, It was the application of social principles to Christianity, The social interest of religion began in the United States at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, with such men as Rauschenbusch, Peabody, Gladden, Ely, and Strong. Here was the idea in action that man can save himself and the world. This was an epoch-making development in American Christianity. It was in fact not a stark new thing but the outgrowth of the revival movement from Edwards, Wesley and Whitefield, to Finney and Moody.


            This manifestation of religion in the social order showed clearly that as a whole we do not greatly emphasize sacrament and ritual; our religion is not emotional or hazily mystic; our theology is not so much heard in articulation of ideas as it is seen in action. What we do and ought to do and can do is so strong that the impression is given that the coming of the Kingdom of God is absolutely dependent upon us. There seems hardly anything left for God to do but to look on. This American Christianity interests Visser ‘t Horft[?], who observes understandingly that we do not hold the conception of sin as inherent in human nature, and that we believe there is no qualitative difference between God and man.


            The origin of this incalculably revolutionary idea about God and man is to be attributed to Jonathan Edwards, who was the last of the Puritan divines and the first of a new order. By him man was raised out of his disability of will in a degree comparable to the teaching of the Arminians, and invested with greatness that earlier theology never taught. God is no longer the inscrutable one, about whom, Calvin remarked, when he had finished his Institutes, there was nothing more to be said. Edwards conceived God as an intelligible and imitable being. His teaching culminated in the construction of the idea of God from the nature of man whom God made in his own image. This marvelous theology is described, and its significance magnified by F. H. Foster in his Genetic History of New EnglandTheology. Edwards worked out a system through which a principle is discovered that is valid for God and man alike. God is no longer above reason, but is bound by philosophical necessities. A rational theodicy led to a theological development in which God became increasingly humanized. There is no fundamental reason, according to Edwards, why God and man should not be brought much nearer together in their qualities and finally even in their essence. Calvin is left far behind when Edwards exalts the principle of benevolence and similitude. God, reasoned Edwards, exercises good will towards creation because he is in a sense present in it. He said in his "Dissertation Concerning the end for which God Created the World,” – "God, in seeking his glory (which he seeks and delights in as he delights in himself and his own eternal glory) implies the communicated excellency and happiness of his creatures.”


            Here, moving into a new world, is Jonathan Edwards. Behind him is God, angry and terrible with sinners, who burned infants in his hell. This new doctrine, with its vast implications, I conceive to be the greatest theological contribution in the interpretation of the American religion. It is also of major historic importance in Christianity, and is regarded rightly as the one original and seminal theological ideas since Augustine. If God's nature can be described by an attribute which is at the same time an attribute in the highest life of man, then a norm has been found which is valid for both God and man. It was bound to follow that the God who was once the altogether Other, the miraculous redemptor, could be no more. The new foundational doctrine was the natural Godlikeness of man. The Gulf was bridged between God and man. Thus the Puritan era of religion was passing away, and there was the rise of what now we know as religious humanism, qualify it how you will.


            I am glad to insert here a note from George A. Gordon, in connection with some remarks by him about  Edwards. "It has become obvious to competent judges in all denominations that Unitarianism, in the hands of Channing and his successors, rediscovered the Christian doctrine of man, the glorious humanism of Jesus. This is a service for which immortal thanks are due.” He also pays tribute to Universalism as a stout antagonist of the old New England divinity. Universalists declared "the love of God for every soul that he has made and his everlasting purpose to pursue with his redeeming grace all souls in all worlds.”


            It is true that Unitarians as a fellowship and a movement, did make this rediscovery and have been the chief organized expositors of the faith, which is central in American religion.


            From many sources we follow the streams of life and thought in our American history. When the time came for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, it was Edwards and the Great Awakening, Chauncy and Wise and Mayhew and scores of other colonial preachers, the Enlightenment and Science, the so called Deistic but really humanistic colonial statesmen, publicists, and writers, and not least, the masses of people themselves - all these and other contributors - that gave the spiritual principles be which we live as a people and nation.


            "Democracy was envisaged in religious terms,” says Earnest Sutherland Bates, "long before it assumed a political terminology.” And the religion of democracy is sustained and strengthened by a restatement of faith. The doctrine of man is the heart of the theology of the American religion. Man, in the words of George A. Gordon, is the primary source of theology, individual, social, historic. "It cannot be said too often, or with too great emphasis, that there is between God and every man (my italics) an inseparable association; that there is in every man a genuine incarnation of God.” For the philosopher this means that the key to the character of the universe is in human personality.


            This humanism has not formally been accepted by the churches; on the contrary it has been formally, and it seems to me faintly opposed. But in the actual ministry of religion the churches have appropriated humanism and you can see it and hear it in sermons and in conferences the length and breadth of the land. Wartime preaching has emphasized man, his dignity and worth, his right to freedom, happiness arid economic well being.


            The essentials of this humanism were at the center of the teachings of the liberal clergy of colonial days and the Revolutionary period. Such political theories as natural right, social contract, right of resistance, and the fundamental principle of American constitutional law requiring governments and persons to keep within bounds were deeply cherished because they were imbued and invested with religious spirit and sanction. Man was the object of faith, and his happiness, liberty, well, being, improvement, and the protection of his property was the object of government. The ministers shared the lives of their people, instructed them, gave them their ideas of democracy which they backed up with texts of the Bible.


            Man they said is a rational creature. The law of nature, by which is meant the general principles of justice and equity under which men were conceived to have lived before any society or civil state, is the law of God. Some of the preachers of election sermons early in the eighteenth century said not only that the law of nature is God's law but that the voice of nature is the voice of God; and from that they leaped to the ultimate radical declaration, "Vox populi est Vox Dei.”


            The majority of ministers preached that governments which did not originate from the people and in which they did not make their own laws, were not governments at all, but tyrannies, "absolutely against the law of God and nature.” It followed from this as Rev. Samuel Landon of Portsmouth, N. H., said, "A government which had a constitution agreeable to the laws of nature, serving the ends of society, securing the life, liberty, and property of the people, was peculiarly of God and conformable to the perfect will of his supreme dominion.” This idea was never stated with such definiteness before colonial days. What is good for man, and is conceived and made effective by man, is of divine character. The people liked this doctrine.


            We have all read that the distinction and glory of Unitarianism has been its consistent affirmation of the whole doctrine of man. Also it has been truly said that if we are to have an adequate religion for America, this doctrine must be clearly enunciated. The doctrine of man is perhaps more important than the doctrine of God, because in the words of George Foot Moore, "there is a correlation between what man wants and what he thinks about the being or beings of- or in- which he seeks the satisfaction of his wants. The relation is reciprocal, but the precedence is on the side of man's wants. This is the path alone which religion advances from stage to stage in the progress of civilization.”

It seems to me we have the data for an adequate doctrinal statement about man not only, but also about other fundamentals of faith. I offer the following seven articles of belief that in my opinion we the people of this country hold and live by:


I. We believe in man, in ourselves and our fellows, and in the unconditioned sacredness of the person.


II. We believe in God, origin and law of life, and of an orderly universe which provides conditions favorable to us in all our ways.


III. We believe in the essential goodness of life and the sure means by which we may have life more abundantly.


IV. We believe that God is made known through man, and that Jesus is the highest formulation of human ideals, and thus God in the only sense that there is a God.


V. We believe that we are free by nature and by right, and sovereign in authority over our lives.


VI. We believe that we are coequal members of the Great Community, in which love is the fulfilling of the law.


VII. We believe that we may know the truth and transform nature and man toward that perfection in life for which all faiths exist--one religion, one humanity, one destiny. And in this faith we live.